By Shawn Waterman
The biggest threat to American Muslims comes from extremism in their own communities, not from government surveillance or police profiling, a Muslim activist told lawmakers Wednesday.
"The greatest threat is actually a theopolitical ideology that is hijacking my faith: Islamism," Dr. Zuhdi Jasser, president of the American Islamic Forum for Democracy told a House Homeland Security Committee hearing chaired by Rep. Peter T. King, New York Republican.
The hearing was the fifth in Mr. King's much-criticized series about homegrown radicalization and terrorism.
Mainstream American Muslim groups were "in denial" about extremism, "claiming victimization," and disparaging legitimate questions as "Islamaphobia and McCarthyism," Dr. Jasser said.
But his views were sharply contested by another witness and even his qualifications to testify were questioned by committee Democrats during a hearing where widely differing views of the relationship between terrorism and Islam sharpened the partisan divide.
"A person's ideology or religiosity is simply not an effective means of predicting terrorism," said Faiza Patel, the co-director of the Liberty and National Security Program at New York University Law School's Brennan Center for Justice.
"The best way to keep our country safe is to use facts to drive counterterrorism policy and using religiosity as an indicator [of potential terrorist activity] doesn't work," she added, citing research by the Rand Corp. think tank and the Pentagon.
Rep. Laura Richardson, California Democrat, volubly questioned the credentials of Dr. Jasser and the other two witnesses -- former reporter and counterterrorism scholar Asra Nomani and New York medical professor Dr. Qanta A. A. Ahmed.
"Do you have specialized knowledge or expertise in terrorism and law enforcement?" she asked them, "Yes or no?"
"We're not a talk show. This isn't Oprah," she complained, "This is the United States Congress."
"I don't think we have such an elitist attitude that we're only going to hear from people who have security clearances," replied Mr. King, saying the witnesses were "people in the trenches, people who live real lives."
The dispute over the witnesses' qualifications was just one of many at a hearing where several points of view appeared to be talking past each other.
Polling evidence showing that 5 percent of Muslim Americans actually had a "favorable" view of al Qaeda was cited both by Mr. King and Ms. Patel.
Ms. Patel called that percentage "tiny" and noted the data also showed that Muslims were more opposed to the use of suicide bombing and other violence against civilians than were any other religious group.
Mr. King pointed out, however, that a 5 percent approval share "would come to more that 150,000 Americans."